Saturday January 5th

Kevin,

It’s our last night in Santa Fe. We’ll be heading off to Denver tomorrow morning and then I’ll make my way up to Wyoming for my residency on Monday. It’s been quite the trip – I’m kind of confused that I was chilling in St. Louis during a snowstorm only a week ago. Four days is a good amount to spend in Santa Fe, though. Its population is about 65,000, so aside from the downtown there’s not too much going on.

The downtown itself is pretty incredible. Endless art studios and shops, all in the pueblo style so the entire town provides an earthy hue backdrop for the turquoise-painted pillars and vibrant colors of the native clothes. The housing market is too expensive for Native American artists to actually reside in Santa Fe (or anyone, really, a lot of people who work here are commuters from Albuquerque), but artisans line up their wares beside the Palace of the Governors in the Plaza (the town square).

I’m pretty ambivalent about the treatment of native art here (partially because I don’t know enough about it), and I wonder what these silversmiths, jewelers, and weavers think about the kitschy “Indian” stuff that’s for sale throughout town. On the one hand, a lot of it is Noble Savage-style offensive. On the other, I have no idea how much the art market here brings money to the pueblos. Maybe the artisans make a good living, although selling their wares on the street while innumerable white-owned art stores line the town makes a bit dubious. I wanted to ask about it, but I felt a bit too awkward (“Hi, I’m a gawky white boy who’s interested in your oppression, would you mind giving me the scoop?”). Even with this giant caveat, I’d still recommend visiting Santa Fe if you haven’t – though you should probably do it in the summer, there just seems to be more going on, and the roads are less treacherous.

But about Fifth Business.

The term applies to a particular role that appears in opera. Typically, we think of the four major parts: Baritone (Male Hero), Soprano (Female Lead), Bass (Male Confidant or Villain), and Mezzo-Soprano (Female Confidant or Villain). But, in a classical opera plot there needs to be one more character, some minor figure who performs a deus ex machina or delivers an important message. Robertson Davies’ term for this is the “fifth business,” and the main character of his book performs this function. The book is similar conceptually to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, in that it focuses on a minor character while the major storyline goes on in the background (the book came out about 4 years after Rosencrantz premiered, so I’d wager Stoppard and Davies came to the same idea around the same time). I’ve always been fascinated with these kinds of stories – some of my favorite TV episodes have used this conceit with great success. The only difference in Fifth Business is that the reader has no idea what the “big story” in the background is, though it’s clear the narrator is a minor character in the larger world in which he exists. The lack of background info makes the book all the more interesting, especially since Dunstan Ramsay (the narrator) doesn’t ever remove himself from the narrative to explain these larger events. He’s claiming to be fifth business but never really lets the story in which he is fifth business come into play. It’s an interesting contradiction, and a peculiar kind of unreliability. I’ve been thinking about how narrators lie, and how the most interesting (to me) are those that don’t lie purposefully, but obviously can’t see what they’re doing in telling their narrative. My own character, Mary, in the back half of Evening on the Grounds is doing something similar, in that she can’t see the impact of her actions, and so tells her story totally blind to them. Ramsay is deathly aware of his impact, but he’s oddly self involved, and doesn’t let the context of that impact become clear.

Anyway, it’s a great book. I know you’ve cut your teeth on Alice Munro, so Canadian fiction should be second nature to you.

I probably won’t manage to get another post out until I’m in Wyoming, so see ya then.

 

-N

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About greycitywhitenorth

Canadian born, Chicago raised writer. Contributer to The A.V. Club. Wearer of Brooks Brothers.
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